The lights dimmed in the Arthur Miller Theater. Before I knew it, someone ran up to me offering me a lollipop, surprising me yet bringing me a giddy joy. The contagious energy of the cast started from the very first second and continued all the way to the end. Passing Strange was a very contemporary musical. Actors took turn acting as props, the stage was very open with a lot of objects being thrown around onstage and falling from the ceiling, and all the actors remained on the stage the entire time, sitting on the sides and being engaged throughout.
We follow the story of the Youth, played magnificently by Liam Allen, a young musician who discovers a newfound revelation and, under the guidance of his closeted gay choir director, turns to marijuana and rock and roll. He decides to leave his mother behind in Los Angeles and travels to Europe, seeking musical inspiration and a life worth living and writing about. However, after he spends some time with free-spirited artists in Amsterdam, getting high and making love every day, he claims that he must leave because everything is too good in paradise and there is nothing to fuel his music. Paradise doesn’t allow for pain and suffering, a very real and natural thing to experience. Without the ability to create art, he runs away. Though he is trying to find something real, he builds a fake persona in Berlin in order to be accepted by the Nowhaus artists with his Blackness. The Youth struggles to understand what life and love is about, and as he faces grief near the end, clings to art to resurrect the only real thing in his life. Finally, the Narrator, who turns out to be an older and more mature Youth self-reflecting on his life’s journey, realizes that love is more powerful than “the real.”
The loud rock & roll and punk rock music of this musical was compelling and performed brilliantly, and the directing was absolutely phenomenal. There were plenty of comedic moments, and the underlying seriousness of the musical really came alive in its final moments, all of which were delivered in an enjoyable yet thought-provoking way. The final scene with everyone standing in a line shining a light let the artistic message of this coming-of-age and self-discovery story linger.
Mr. Venus’ Riot Cabaret contained some striking lines that Matthew Sanguine delivered in a brilliant performance. Though it is supposed to come across as avant-garde and over the top, there is an existentialist truth to this little show that resonates in the heart and mind. He sings over and over: “Ideas are dependable there’s a new one every week / Emotions are expendable because they aren’t unique / Culture is cosmetic / What’s inside is just a lie.”
The fourth wall was nonexistent in this show. As the Narrator, Justin Showell provided striking commentary throughout the show, interacting with the actors occasionally and even talking directly to the audience. In a meta story about the Pretzel Man, the Narrator reveals that the Youth was trying to find something “real” in art that could only be found in art. Passing Strange was deeply moving and provoked a lot of self-reflection about the purpose of life that will change how I interact with myself and others as I strive to find my own version of love and “the real.”